Following Sensational Sunday, the greatest single day in British Olympic history since 1908, Team GB is second on the Rio 2016 medal table. A position held only once before when we topped the board in the London 1908 Olympics with 56 gold, 52 silver and 39 bronze medals. Watching Max Whitlock become a national hero when he made history by becoming Britain’s first ever Olympic gold gymnast not once but twice in one hour was stomach churning stuff!
Most of us can relate to this experience of having a gut wrenching feeling or butterflies in our stomach. Common metaphors we use daily are ‘go with your gut’, ‘trust your gut instinct’, ‘what’s your gut feeling’, ‘what’s your gut reaction’, ‘what’s your gut saying’, ‘do you have the stomach for it’, ‘do you have the guts’ or ‘they are gutless’ or ‘I was gutted when’. Intuitively we know that we need to acknowledge this phenomenon when making decisions. But, often we don’t as we are taught that the best way to make a decision is to focus on the logical, reasoning part of our minds and to ignore our instincts.
But, what if I were to tell you that scientists have proven beyond all reasonable doubt that paying attention to what your gut is saying is not a metaphor, but actually listening to your second brain? That little inner voice that lets you know what to do when your head can’t make a choice, that’s your gut talking. If you have a feeling in your gut, it’s for a very good reason. Even if you can’t put your finger on that reason or even articulate it, it’s real, it’s there, ready to guide you.
Now, it can’t actually talk to you or have any conscious thoughts or make any decisions – that’s what the brain in your skull is for. But, our brains’ powers are a little overvalued. Sure, you need it to pay your credit card bill or to compose a symphony or write your brand strategy but, to keep your body going, you don’t actually need a functioning brain, you just need something to provide you with energy, and that’s where the gut comes in. Our brain is 2% to 3% of our body mass but uses 25% of our energy. Where does our energy come from? Food, of course.
At first, the gut was thought to only control digestion but, embedded in its walls is the enteric nervous system (ENS). This comprises an estimated 500 million neurons, is around 9 metres long and stretches from your oesophagus to your anus. It arises from the same tissues as the central nervous system (CNS) during foetal development and has many structural and chemical parallels to the brain and as such is commonly referred to as the ‘second brain’
What happens in the gut has an impact on the brain. The ENS acts automatically, but sends messages to the brain via the vagus nerve that influences our behaviour affecting both our psychological and physical health. 90% of the signals passing along the vagus nerve or gut-brain axis come from the ENS and not from above (American Journal of Physiology – Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, vol 283, p G1217). What’s really interesting is that if the vagus nerve is cut and connection to the brain is lost, the gut can carry on functioning without receiving any commands from the brain.
What’s equally intriguing is that the ENS produces 50% of our dopamine and 95% of our serotonin. Dopamine is associated with both pleasure and reward, and is crucial for learning and memory. It’s released during pleasurable situations, stimulating you to seek out more ‘feel good’ activities. Whilst serotonin is responsible for maintaining our mood balance, regulating sleep, appetite and body temperature, repairing damaged liver and lung cells, regulating bone density and a role in normal heart development. A deficit leads to depression.
Science has discovered that our brain may not be solely in charge of our day to day behaviour. While our second brain isn’t capable of cognitive thought, it does account for how we intuitively feel about a situation or environment and the kind of ‘vibes’ we get from people.
Understanding our second brain is revolutionising science’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health, behaviour and the way we think. A growing body of research is suggesting that the health of our gut is linked to numerous conditions beyond gastrointestinal disorders such as indigestion or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Obesity and sleep deprivation.
Psychological disorders such as depression, stress and anxiety.
Autoimmune disorders such as Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s.
Neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.
It’s clear that emotional and psychosocial factors can trigger symptoms in the gut, and now vice versa. Research is being conducted to better understand how the brain and gut communicate in order to reveal the causes of and treatments for a range of ailments as well as provide diagnostic clues for doctors.
“The gut is important in medical research, not just for problems pertaining to the digestive system but also problems pertaining to the rest of the body,” says Pankaj J. Pasricha, chief of the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at Stanford University School of Medicine.
One treatment involving electrically stimulating the vagus nerve to reduce the symptoms of epilepsy is approved by the FDA and already on the market!
Unsurprisingly, our gut has its primary input into our right brain which is non-verbal and intuitive, uses pictures rather than words, and is often regarded as our more ‘creative’ side. Listening to your gut can pay dividends but, other times it could easily lead us astray.
When should you really pay attention to what it’s saying?
- Your body doesn’t feel right. It instinctively knows when something is out of balance. See a doctor. Pay attention to how you feel every time you interact with someone. Do they make you feel drained, anxious or depressed, or enlivened and happy?
- The situation gives you a bad feeling. The fight-or-flight response in humans was designed to warn us of immediate danger. Act on it.
- You sense someone needs help despite them not asking or saying they don’t! Support them.
- You get ‘stage fright’ through over thinking. Allow your instincts to take over.
- When it just feels the right thing to do or choice to make.
Listen to your gut; give it the attention it deserves. Don’t ignore it because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings Do what you can to make it healthy and trustworthy. After all, it has your best interests at heart!